Gender Issues: Red Sonja and Comic Book Covers

They say not to judge a book by its cover. We’ve all been guilty of committing that error from time to time. When we take a chance on a book with a questionable cover, we can be pleasantly surprised.

Unlike books, comic readers almost always have to judge a comic by the cover. As a highly visual medium, the attention-grabbing images have to pull the reader to it. Splashy action sequences, stunning contrasting colors, powerful heroes, and, yes, hyper-sexualized women. It comes with the comics package, unfortunately. People have spoken out against this practice, and fans are fed up. Rightly so.

Justice League 29
Bob recently expressed his concerns about this cover. What do you think?

There are comic book series with covers that work against them. The images displayed across the cover hide a superior book with a completely different message within the pages.

Red Sonja is one such comic.

I judged this series solely on the covers. A pretty warrior woman in impractical clothes, often presented in poses that were insane…it was enough to keep any self-respecting female comic fan from the story. I was sure that the interior of this book reflected the same message. It wasn’t until Gail Simone took the helm that I finally gave the character a chance.

Huh. I'm not sure this cover image is intended for me.
Huh. I’m not sure this cover image is intended for me.

Sonja is a warrior, a woman, and ruthless. At times, she displays a heart of gold. She drinks, gets in bar fights, and has sex with men she chooses. She strives to enact justice and protect the weak. In short, Sonja under Simone’s pen is a rounded, likeable female character.

After nine issues, it is clear that Red Sonja is more than the covers it has traditionally put out. Sonja does not always wear the chainmail bikini featured on the cover within the pages.

Layout 1
From Red Sonja #3
Sonja displaying some appropriate armor.
Sonja displaying some appropriate armor.

And that’s why cover images are important. They give a snapshot of the comic series, brief and static. The casual reader must make a decision about the story. If a woman is displayed on the cover scantily clad or severely disproportioned, what is a new reader supposed to think? Would they even want to try the series?

I am a seasoned comic reader who could only overcome the presence of sexualized covers when a favorite writer was on the team. Covers that are demeaning are harmful to series, characters, and readers. While covers are not always representative of a series, they can be important in helping new readers choose a series.

Yeah, we still get the chain mail bikini on the cover...
Yeah, we still get the chain mail bikini on the cover…
Red Sonja 1 Staples
…but at least there’s some diversity of poses and styles.

Red Sonja 8

There is no quick remedy for this issue. It may even leave some people divided – like in this case for Simone’s Red Sonja – over whether or not a new series should be tried. As a reader, it’s important to be aware of how covers impact you as a fan and where you want to spend your money.

5 thoughts on “Gender Issues: Red Sonja and Comic Book Covers

  1. While I disapprove of the completely misleading and hyper-sexualized covers, it unfortunately tends to work. But I lose respect for creators that relies on over-sexualization of characters in order to sell more books.

    Gail Simone is clearly not the type to do that sort of thing to her characters so my question is, who over-sees these covers and lets them represent the book as a whole? You’d think somebody would step in and make the covers more representative of the actual contents of the book. Who knows.

    1. I think they are trying. They’ve toned down the fanservice sexualization and amped up the toughness of the character, but they still rely on the traditional costume. Nothing is wrong with it, but I’m pretty sure it can and does effect who is interested in this comic. The cover image doesn’t even begin to convey the nuanced character inside the book. This is pretty typical of cover images, so this series is just a tiny example. I think Red Sonja does a great job slashing hypersexualized images within its pages.

  2. I could be wrong, but didn’t Gail Simone herself say that she likes the chain mail bikini? Also, most (if not all) of the covers for Red Sonja’s first arc were drawn by women. Fiona Staples’ cover is my favourite.

    1. You’re right – those covers were drawn by women. And the chain mail bikini is iconic for the character. But, to new readers who don’t know any of that, the covers for this series can discourage them from picking up this fantastic series. I’m glad I did my research on Red Sonja before grabbing it, but I’ve always wondered what it was like for a new reader to experience covers similar to this series.

      And I’m with you on the Staples cover – that is a beautiful cover.

      1. Oh, I completely agree. I was appalled by the Witchblade covers when I first started reading comics a couple years back, but I checked out the free issues on Comixology and fell in love. I even really liked Michael Turner’s art, cheesecakey as it was.

        Still, I’m disappointed by how many artists/publishers ruin a great book with a super sexualized cover. It’s lazy and unnecessary.

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